When we turn to works articulating religious forms of naturalism . . .
we see an emerging consensus around a family-resemblance collection of features that religiously useful forms of naturalism tend to display. The point of speaking of family resemblance here is that this emerging consensus is not on a single coherent doctrine, but rather on a list of propositions, most of which occur in a variety of combinations.
With caveats in mind, . . .
I assert that religiously useful naturalism affirms most of the following:
- Nature is sacred
in its beauty, terror, scale, stochasticity, emergent complexity, and evolutionary development.
- The sacredness of nature expresses the self-transcendent potential of nature,
and especially of natural creatures with self-awareness and moral imagination such as human beings.
- The sacredness of nature imposes moral obligations upon us
to understand, appreciate, and preserve the parts of nature under our influence, taking full responsibility for our creative strategies through increasing compassion and control.
- There is no supernature:
no supernatural agents, no supernatural means of knowledge, no supernatural authorizations, and no supernatural deity.
- Religions encode much wisdom about sacred nature
but this religious wisdom is distorted in myths and legends
that harden into literal descriptions of reality.
Thus, religious naturalism can affirm traditional religions in some respects
and must criticize them in other respects.
- Human beings are vulnerable to cognitive error,
which keeps religious distortions and superstitions alive.
Careful education can confer on individuals the ability to recognize and contest these cognitive biases.
- Religious naturalism will become increasingly attractive and socially viable
as plausibility structures are changed by education that corrects cognitive biases and by centralizing humanist and ecological values in our species’ quest for survival.”
The cumulative affirmation here is that naturalism, understood in a particular way – namely, as affirming most of the propositions in the list above – can be religiously relevant and can define a life world for people drawn to it.
. . . religious naturalism in my preferred formulation is far from being a new movement, as contemporary advocates of religious naturalism sometimes assert of their preferred views. Rather, it has persisted on the underside of most religious and theological traditions for millennia, particularly in their more mystical and conceptual sub-traditions.
The resulting worldview richly resonates in multiple directions:
- backwards through the complex history of human reflection on reality and ultimacy,
- inwards to the endlessly fascinating world of human spiritual longings,
- outwards to the perpetual challenges of moral and political life, and
- forwards into an ecologically and socially uncertain future
Spelling out some of these resonances will help to make clear the philosophical-theological pedigree, socio-religious power, moral relevance, and spiritual allure of religious naturalism – again, at least for some people, and at least under certain civilizational conditions.
All of these illustrations make the same point: religious naturalism is a profoundly meaningful strand of wisdom widely woven into the tapestry that is religion on planet Earth. It persists mostly on the underside of the major religious traditions, the less popular shady haven to which people can turn for relief from the garish brightness of belief in supernatural agents, perpetually in thrall to uncorrected cognitive biases. Thus, religious naturalism quietly nurtures the religious traditions whose juggernaut social power also carries religious naturalist ideas along for the ride. The quieter, shady regions within these traditions are usually found near the mystical thinkers and scattered within the intellectual sub-traditions. Not everyone knows about them but they are there, waiting to enfold the desperate seekers of relief and to stimulate the curious souls eager to venture beyond the well marked safety zones of the large wisdom traditions. This is how religious naturalism arrives in our present: with a powerful philosophical pedigree and with clear spiritual and pastoral applicability to a certain type of person.
How should we describe the kind of person for whom religious naturalism is food for the soul? Given the dominance of supernatural-agent beliefs within religion, from ancient shamanic and tribal contexts to multicultural global religious traditions, it is obvious that naturalist soul food will be minority fare, satisfying to a distinctive clientele and bizarre or even disgusting to the majority. Yet anything capable of captivating the attention of a sometimes misunderstood minority must possess a certain type of spiritual potency, a peculiar applicability to the trials and travails of human life.
The religious naturalist feels at home within sacred nature.
Nature’s beautiful wildness punctuates its inhospitable expanses, graciously enables life, and perpetually threatens the natural miracle of stable bodily function. While it exists, life presses into possibility everywhere it can, exploring with wonder and fear, dancing with the sacred, whooping up a joyful hullabaloo under the stars. At the same time, rightly or wrongly, the religious naturalist is weary of what feels like the fantasy of supernatural agents, wary of the deflections of responsibility that supernatural agents so often sponsor, and wounded by the ferocity of supernaturally authorized coalitions in which fantasy accumulates and hardens into social control. In retreat from this harsh world of forceful delusions, the religious naturalist self-consciously embraces realism and the grittiness of moral appraisal that comes with it. For example, just as a human life is gratefully enjoyed and creatively exercised, that life is nobly or tragically returned to the soil when the body disintegrates, or is taken by microorganisms, murderers, or meat-eating predators. This is not a longing for the continuation of consciousness after death but rather the dew drop slipping silently into the shining sea.
And the point of it all?
As the Hindus would say, it is līla, or divine play; Calvin called it divine glory; and both Śaṅkara and Nāgārjuna thought it was the weaving of saṃsāric illusions around an inexpressibly plenitudinous emptiness.
For the religious naturalist, the whole of reality does not need to cohere in the manner of a divine personality, and it is a relief not to have to pretend that it does.
Wildman, Wesley. Religious Naturalism: What It Can Be, and What It Need Not Be.
Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences. 1(1). 2014. 36-58.